Stanford University has dismissed an attorney it retained to represent students in sexual-assault cases after she publicly criticized the university’s adjudication process in a New York Times story.
Crystal Riggins of San Jose-based firm Hoge Fenton was one of six approved attorneys Stanford brought on to support students, both accusers and accused, in Title IX cases under a new pilot adjudication process launched last February. Under the process, a panel of three panelists must unanimously agree to find a student responsible of sexual assault.
A Dec. 29 New York Times story examining this process through the lens of one alleged-rape case quoted Riggins, who described the process as "complex" and difficult, particularly for sexual-assault victims, whom she represents.
"It is very difficult to get a 3-0 decision from a panel, and these young women are terrified and traumatized and just want it to be done," she told the New York Times.
On Jan. 31, Riggins received a letter from Lauren Schoenthaler, former senior counsel and now senior associate vice provost for institutional equity and access for the university, notifying her that effective the next day, she was no longer a “Stanford-sponsored Title IX attorney" because of the comments she had made in the New York Times story, the newspaper reported this week. Schoenthaler called her comments "disappointing," the New York Times story states.
"Given your stated lack of confidence, it does not make sense for the university to continue to refer our students to you," wrote Schoenthaler, who helped develop Stanford's Title IX process.
Riggins told the Weekly Friday that she stands by her comments in the New York Times article, which she acknowledged were "critical," but did not amount to a lack of confidence in Stanford nor its Title IX process.
"For complaining students (accusers), knowing that they have to get everyone to believe them, essentially — that comes into play in how you're evaluating a case and how you're advising clients," she said. "That's my job."
Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said Riggins was let go as an approved attorney out of "fairness" for students, not as retaliation for her public criticisms.
"This is not retaliation and it's not a free-speech issue," she added. "It's an issue of fairness for our students."
Schoenthaler's letter also included a link for Riggins to provide feedback on the Title IX process to an advisory committee on sexual assault policies, which she said she did. In a memo sent to the group this week, she expressed concern that the list of available attorneys will now "disadvantage complaining students" and strongly recommended Stanford "immediately add attorneys with experience representing complaining students to the list," according to the New York Times.
Riggins said she has only ever represented student-victims at Stanford. Lapin said that the university allows this group of attorneys to decide whether they want to represent accusers, accused or both.
Stanford's pilot adjudication process provides students on both sides with up to nine hours of free counsel from a list of local attorneys. Lapin said the university is working to train additional lawyers and plans to soon add four new attorneys to that list.
Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, an outspoken critic of Stanford’s handling of sexual violence, called Riggins' removal "disturbing" and worried it could have a chilling effect on lawyers who represent sexual-assault survivors.
"A lawyer is required to maintain independence of judgment regardless of who is paying the bill," she said. "The concern is that lawyers will feel pressure to tone down their advocacy in order to avoid upsetting the university especially if they have other cases that are ongoing in the system."
When asked for her response to this criticism, Lapin said that this "is not a concern."
Riggins said she will continue to represent Stanford students in two pending cases. She also represents students in Title IX cases at other local universities, she said.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture ongoing coverage of sexual-assault issues at Stanford University. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.